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There's no mistaking that the 2011 WRX and STI mean business, with flared nostrils, flared wheel arches and generally more flair than any other Subaru. The bodywork may look as busy as a racecar's without the decals, but all those scoops, vents, curves and spoilers are there for engineering reasons, not cosmetics.
The WRX now wears essentially the same clothes as the STI: puffed-up fenders covering fatter tires and wheels set wider apart. In return, the STI gets a four-door sedan derivative previously reserved for the WRX.
Distinguishing WRX and STI is easiest from the rear. The WRX sedan has a lip spoiler along the trailing edge of the trunk, and the hatchback a spoiler atop the rear window. In contrast the STI sedan's rear spoiler is a wing standing well off the trunk's surface and the hatchback has a larger spoiler atop the rear window. Sedans use conventional taillights while hatchbacks get clear-lens arrangements with some LED elements that help it stand out, and the STI's quad tailpipes are polished stainless 3 outlets.
A wider, lower front end treatment, a bit deeper on the STI, sets off both cars, and some have HID low-beam headlamps but bi-xenon units are not available; perhaps Subaru expects owners to add their own bank of driving lights. The fender badge reads WRX or STI as appropriate. The WRX has 235/45R17 tires versus the STI's 245/40R18 rubber. BBS forged wheels come on the STI hatchback and STI Limited sedan. Spotters may also notice the STI brake calipers.
The current-generation, launched as a 2008 model, is the largest WRX generation ever, which translates to more room inside the car. The four-door sedan, developed specifically for the United States, is more than six inches longer than the five-door hatchback. The four-door has the edge in covered trunk space and about 3 mph higher top speed, the hatchback a minor advantage in rear-seat headroom comfort and is slightly lighter in STI guise.
In side view, the most prominent bit of design is a sharp crease that extends from the front wheel arch and runs just above the door handles all the way to the rear. It helps create the impression of a wedge, and emphasizes the aggressive attitude of the whole car. We appreciate the flared fenders employed more to cover wide tires than as the retro styling exercise of the Mercedes' E-Class pontoon rear fenders.
American buyers overwhelmingly prefer sedans to hatchbacks but the latter are making a comeback. In the case of the WRX and STI, we will take the hatch, however, and not just for its practical benefits like a rear wiper, better visibility, easier parking and the ability to carry awkward loads. We'd say it's the more handsome car. Its roofline runs in a single, elegant nearly-French curve from the base of the windshield to that spoiler at the top of the rear glass. Also, its rear overhang is considerably shorter than the sedan's and the STI sedan's wing is downright invitational to law enforcement. Shorter overhangs are generally better for handling, in addition to other benefits.
WRX and STI have an aluminum hood, which reduces weight in front and helps distribute the car's mass more evenly over the front and rear wheels. Both cars feature the latest evolution of what Subaru calls its Ring Frame Reinforced body design. Think of RFR as a safety cell in roughly a cube shape around the passenger compartment, made of stronger, hydro-formed steel sections. The idea is more strength and rigidity without an undue increase in weight, and it may help explain the excellent ratings in NHTSA crash tests. The first objective of RFR is better occupant protection, but the structural improvements pay dividends in many respects, from more responsive handling to improved smoothness in just about every aspect of the car's operation.
When the WRX and STI were redesigned for 2008, their interiors were more understated, or subdued, than they'd been in years. Since then, however, Subaru has re-introduced details such as aluminum alloy covers for the foot pedals, red stitching on the seats and steering wheel for 2009, and embroidered WRX logos to remind occupants of what they're sitting in, in case the howl of the free-revving turbocharged engine isn't enough. For 2010, the line-topping STI model got new black Alcantara upholstery with red stitching, instead of gray Alcantara with silver stitching, for a bolder presentation.
For 2011, WRX changes are evolutionary. The new gauge cluster looks instantly familiar to us and conveys the same data in the same manner; the central tachometer dominates everything. The stereo system has been revised, now capable for satellite radio, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod control and USB and auxiliary inputs.
The major change is the option of leather upholstery and a moonroof in Limited-level sedans. This choice may find favor with owners seeking some luxury with their performance, though we prefer our rally cars as is: a moonroof adds weight at the highest point on the car, to a small extent working against the low center of gravity that aids handling, and the cloth seats grip better for keeping you in place and don't have the surface temperature extremes of leather.
Based on the Impreza's cabin, the WRX and STI benefit from lots of glass and low window sills, giving a light and airy feeling that belies the compact label. Head and legroom in front are generous and the sporty front seats leave more rear seat legroom than the numbers imply. Four six-footers won't tax it, and most enthusiasts will have plenty of headroom for a helmet.
The front bucket seats in the WRX are upholstered with a soft, black-checkered fabric, double stitched in the fashion of a luxury car, and they provide a good compromise between support and comfort. There's enough side bolstering top and bottom to keep occupants snug during fairly aggressive driving, but there's also plenty of give in the cushions.
The seats in the STI are more like aftermarket performance seats, which means harder and more heavily bolstered. They're even better for hard driving, but the snugger fit leaves less squirm room during longer, more relaxed travel, and they demand more energy to climb in and out of. The seats come in black Alcantara with red stitching. The integral headrests may require a helmeted driver to have their head further forward, or backrest more reclined, than they are accustomed to.
Overall, the WRX driving position is excellent. Seat adjustments are simple, but they allow people of various sizes to get properly situated. Most drivers will be able to reach all controls, including those for adjusting side mirrors, without lifting head or shoulders from the seatback. A suitably contoured tilt/telescoping steering wheel does the same for gauge vision and stalk controls, while the adjacent shifter and handbrake are right where you want them. One minor gripe regarding the armrests: They're positioned such that each elbow rests at a slightly different height. Then again, you'll seldom use both simultaneously.
Gauges are easy to read and illuminated in dark amber. The trim is a metallic silver plastic. You'll find more attractively grained plastics and maybe richer looking trim materials and carpet in this price range, but nothing in the WRX looks cheap enough to kill the deal. That's at least partly because the dashboard layout is so straightforward, effective and easy to clean the dust off of.
The size and shape of the dash is roughly symmetrical on both the driver and passenger sides, with a big, outreaching center stack of controls and displays in the middle. The four dash vents are fully adjustable and large enough to move plenty of air.
An LCD sits under its own hood at the top of the center stack, with temperature indicator, time and other information. At the bottom sit three big climate-control knobs: one each for temperature, airflow direction and fan speed, easy to grab with barely a peripheral glance, operating with a nice tactile sensation that conveys the amount of adjustment. In between are the standard audio controls or the optional navigation screen. Both are good sized and easy to manipulate. While the audio knobs aren't as big as those for the air conditioning, volume, source and tuning can also be adjusted with buttons on the steering wheel spokes.
The expanse of glass combines with narrow windshield pillars to provide excellent outward visibility in virtually any direction. Wiper coverage and strength is up to muddy rally standards, well beyond daily driving, and on most models the area where the wipers park is electrically heated so you needn't wait for the defrost to thaw them before sweeping the snow off.
Cargo capacity in the sedan is fairly good. With 11.3 cubic feet of trunk space, it falls toward the lower end of its size class, a bit less than what's found in the less-expensive Honda Civic Si sedan or the more expensive BMW 328i. Still, the WRX does have all-wheel drive and the rear seatback splits and folds forward. With the 60-percent portion laid flat, there's enough room to slide two golf bags in through the trunk, and still leave room for a third passenger.
Cargo space in the five-door hatch is much better. With 19 cubic feet, rear seat up, there's a lot more space than what's available in the typical small sedan's trunk if you don't need the rear window view. The hatchback also allows taller objects to be contained within the car. When the rear seat is folded cargo capacity expands to 44.4 cubic feet, with easy access from the rear side doors to help push things in and out.
Cubby storage is average. The glove box is deep, holding more stuff than most, and there's a lined bin in front of the gearshift for phones, openers or glasses. There's a pair of cupholders in the center console, just right of the handbrake that are up to the car's handling abilities. Another cupholder in each front door pocket is large enough for a 24-ounce bottle. The box in the center console has jacks for MP3 players and a power point. Models with the navigation system come with a video jack. This allows video games or DVD players to project on the navi screen, but only when the car is parked.
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